Rwanda Day 6

I am led into a small treatment room at WE-ACTx. There is a bed/table with wooden stairs leading up to it. A desk. A rolling chair and a large bottle of omnipresent hand sanitizer. I’ll be working for just an hour and a half – performing 15-minute massage sessions on staff.

There are too many patients. And they may be too traumatized still to receive touch. This is a beginning.

I have been told that my work is unique. Less massage. More connecting, following, feeling, listening, leaning in. Subtle. I know it is not for everyone.

I am amazed to find the workers’ bodies incredibly open to my work. Chantal makes happy noises as I lean into her back. She hugs and kisses me when we are done and tells me, “I feel like a baby.” Edwin, who I have put on the table, is curious if I work with patients in a chair. He thinks they would feel more comfortable that way. He is looking forward. Francoise asks me to massage her face. She asks if I have videos or books on how to massage. I take her email and promise to send her sources. Jacky seems dubious about all of it. Her boss has told me how important it is that I work on her. When I am done she says something in French. I respond in French that I do not understand. (I speak only that much…) She says in English, “Begin again.” We laugh and we hug. I say, “Next time.” She repeats, “Next time.”

A line has formed. Word has gotten out among the staff that this is a good thing. I do not have time for them all.

Before leaving, I take photographs of the room and I say out loud, “G-d, if I am supposed to be here, let me know.” And I cry. I run into Marge, one of the founding doctors. I tell her I am humbled and honored. That there is much work to be done. On staff. Teaching staff. Teaching self-care. And I begin to cry again. Happy tears. Grateful tears. I am grateful for my hands. For the ability to connect with people in this way. For this opportunity.

After lunch, we meet at the WE-ACTx house for a dance lesson with Jolie. It is hot and sunny, but I am excited anyway. I have been taking West African dance for four years now. And while this is different, it still translates. I feel clunky and unskilled and I remind the group of what I tell myself at class, “permission to suck.” The group does not think I suck. Many ask if I am a dancer. I tell them of my secret, private, fantasy career to be a choreographer but that I wouldn’t take a dance class until I got sober. Until my husband bought me a gift certificate at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Dance. And then I was hooked. The reflection is nice. Affirming. I usually dance with men and women who have been doing this far longer than I. That has been my gauge. Our “photographer” shows me a video he has taken. I am moving my back and not just my limbs. My Senegalese teacher would be proud.

After dance class we divide into groups of three for home visits with Peer Parents from WE-ACTx. We bring them samosas and juice. My group is assigned to Lilliane’s house. She is a Peer Parent leading the young mother’s group. She is a young mother herself.

The Malcolm X bus drops us and we are swarmed with locals, fascinated by the muzungos – the wealthy, white folk. Lilliane fetches us and we cross a rickety bridge into her neighborhood. I feel like I am in the bowels of the Old City in Jerusalem where streets are like a cobblestone maze and no one speaks English.

We arrive at her home, 3 rooms. We sit in the main room that has a couch and two chairs, a table and a chest that holds a radio and I am guessing, a television that is often mentioned. I am told that for Lilliane’s child’s birthday, 40 people crammed in to celebrate, with food for days.

Mama Lilliane arrives (Parent’s call themselves like this. Mama and Papa and insert name of one on your children.) Mama Lilliane is a vision in yellow – skirt, top and head wrap. Tall, elegant. She is quintessentially French. She greets us with three cheek kisses and many Oh La La’s. We dress R in Lilliane’s African sari and take photographs. I show Lilliane what we learned at dance class and she and I break into impromptu dance in the dark house.

There is a stove outside and a public toilet somewhere in the neighborhood. I had been directed to pee before coming and am glad that I do not have to go now. Mama Lilliane tells us that the government is buying her home and that she will receive a small sum of money to relocate. They are razing the neighborhood to build new homes. We tell her that this happens in Chicago too. She seems nonplused. She has lived through so much worse than this.

Rwanda Day 5

Rwanda Day 5

Yesterday’s breakfast included mushroom soup.  Unorthodox, but tasty. So I try it again today.  My roommate calls it yucky tummy.  Accurate.

We spend the morning shopping at the WE-ACTx Ineza sewing cooperative.  A dozen women sit at black Singer sewing machines, stitching together yoga mat bags, purses, pillows and ties.  They clap when we walk in. 

We decimate their show room, and tell ourselves we are pumping money into the Rwandan economy.  This is true.  And I have the unique opportunity to meet the women who are literally crafting their way to self-sufficiency.  One of the teens gets measured to have a shirt made for him.  Another woman orders a custom pillow.  We will pick them up on Monday.

 Next stop is the market.  We are told to try to find our driver, Mark, when we are ready to purchase, as he will help us to make a better deal.  I cannot find him and do my best with some jewelry.  The first vendor I encountered, but do not buy from, tells me we had a deal.  I tell her we did not and keep walking.

My roommate and I wander into the “hardware department.”  She laughs that it is the same as at home – she can’t find anything.  Deeper in we find the food stalls and I am shooting photographs like it is my job – which once upon a time, I thought it would be.  Mounds of potatoes.  Baskets of peas.  Red beans drying in the sun.  Dried fish.  Cooking oil for sale in re-purposed plastic water bottles.  Along the perimeter are shops with names like “God is Great” – a fish and meat counter.  The vendors do not want their photographs taken.  One wants money in order for me to take a photo of rocks of curry.  I walk away and then he tells me its ok.  He wants to see the picture.  Many vendors want to see the picture.  We are surrounded.  I tell my roommate its time to go and she agrees.

 We find the fabric vendors and each end up with 4 meters of fabric.  I am not certain if I will make a dance skirt out of it, hang it on the wall, or wrap it around myself like many of the women here.  Perhaps I will cut off a piece to wear on my head.  I had hoped to buy a stiff scrap and learn how to tie it like Eryka Badhu, but no one will sell me one.  They only sell complete outfits.  I am certain of this, as Mark took me to several stalls and inquired.  Fabrics are not made in Rwanda.  Ours are imported from Congo.  My vendor allows me to photograph her.  She doesn’t like my first effort, so we take a second.  We laugh and she asks if I want an outfit made.  I don’t.  And we have to go besides.  She says, “Next time.”  “Yes,” I say.  “Next time.”

I am acutely aware that my trip mates are shopping for partners and children.  They have “shopping obligations.”  I do not.  My divorce feels incredibly real.  I spent a few moments crying with my roommate before we went out on our shopping trip.  I know that it is no mistake that she was put in my life at this time.  And I am grateful for her.

 After lunch we return to Nyconga to paint a room for the WE-ACTx jewelry co-operative.  William, the artist we met a few days ago, guides us.  He mixes paint. Lavender.  Pepto Bismol pink.  Pale yellow.  Crème de Mint.  We don’t have stirring sticks or rollers.  We re-use the same masking tape over and over again.  I kick of my orange peep-toe wedges and work barefoot.  I am the edger.  The work goes quickly.  It is, as my roommate and I say, “Africa good.”  We do the best we can with what we have.  It is enough.  It is good enough.  And it is.



Day 2 Rwanda

I am in love with all of these girls with shaved heads and big almond eyes.  We stare at one another like sisters.  At least I do.

I take photographs of me with my African sisters and they are excited to see themselves on my smart phone. “That’s me!” “That’s me!”  “Yes,” I say.  “Beautiful.”  And they are.

 We’ve taken the bus named Malcolm X up to Nyoconga – where WE-ACTx leads programs for children with HIV and AIDS, or whose family members are infected.  A year ago these children were listless.  Today, we walk in to find them dancing and singing.  And we are invited to join in.  David and Pretty lead the activities.  They are called “Peer Parents” – appropriate as many of these children are orphans, many taken in by other families.  It is hard to imagine how they feed another mouth.  But they do.

 The younger children want to touch us.  Sit on us while playing a version of Duck Duck Goose.  I am taken by a girl about 13 (She may be older.  Many appear younger due to malnutrition and stunted growth.).  She is wearing a black skirt and a red, shiny shirt with buttons.  I have one like it in green at home.  I don’t want to leave her.  I cannot say why.  My heart hurts when we get back on Malcolm X and wave.  I think of Rabbi Beth in Seattle asking me if I am going to bring a baby home from Rwanda.  I understand how this happens.

 After lunch we go to the Kigali Memorial Center (National Genocide Memorial).  I have read just enough of Philip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” to not be surprised by what I am learning.  I rent the audio companion and read the screens in English, French and Kinyarwanda.  I break down in the room dedicated to the children murdered in the genocide.  Softly.  There are photographs of children with simple details.  Favorite Food.  Favorite Drink.  Best Friend.  Known For.  How Killed.  Machete.  Grenade.  Thrown against a wall.  On a post is a small glass plaque – a quote from a child survivor.  He says that he looks for his brothers in the market still.  But he will never see them.  So simple.  So real.  So utterly human.  And I cry.

 One of the young girls on our trip is also crying.  She is 16.  Her mother is not here, but her aunt is.  Some of the group seem overly concerned about her tears.  We walk to the bus together and I tell her that I am a cryer too.  I put my arm around her and tell her it is good that she cries.  It means she feels.  We talk all the way to our next destination.  She agrees that she will journal about this and will call her mother.  She tells me she is glad to talk with me.

 We get lost trying to find William’s studio.  He is the painter who led us in creating a mural at WE-ACTx the day before.  Up and down red dirt roads riddled with potholes.  Trash ground into the grass at the side of the street.  Several cell phone calls later we are at the studio cooperative where William and other artists paint and show their work.  We have stumbled across the “it happening” in Rwanda art.  I am told so by Kate, a gallery owner from London putting together a show for Emmanuel.  He is beautiful and charming with tightly wound, skinny dreadlocks.  He speaks perfect  English.  I buy a small painting from another artist in the co-op — apparently he is well known.  It is the first piece I see.  My rabbi comments it has a Picasso feel.  It reminds me of sitting naked with my arms wrapped around my knees.  Many of us buy art.  One woman commissions a piece.  The artists take the larger works off their wooden frames and roll them up for traveling.  The will be re-stretched in the States.  The artists invite us to their opening next Saturday.  We are excited, as we will be here and can attend.  I take a photograph with Emmanuel and Kate says “Isn’t he gorgeous?” I agree.  “Come back next week for the opening…who knows what will happen,” she says.  And we giggle like the shaved-head schoolgirls in the street.

 We wait for Malcolm X for a long time.  Mark, our bus driver, has gone to pick up a woman from Nairobi, Kenya.  She has ridden a bus for 2 days to get here.  Her sister lives in Chicago and knows participants on our trip.  They were separated during the genocide in 1994, when the elder was 8 and the younger was 4.  They only recently learned that the other is alive.  She joins us for dinner.  Just as Gourevitch writes, she speaks in shorthand – “Before.”  Before the genocide.

 She tells me a little over her story over Indian food and promises, “I will tell you my story tomorrow.” 


We just got back from dinner – Ethiopian food. The music is cranked outside the CommonWealth Guest House where we are staying and people are dancing in the yard. Last night it was Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing Islands in the Stream. The music seems as random as the architecture.

Tin shacks dot one side of the green hills. Modern, clean-lined homes surrounded by walls the other. It reminds me of Mexico. The dichotomy is everywhere. Women in traditional African fabrics, baskets on their heads, walk side-by-side with women in jeans. Sidewalks (and dirt roads) teem with people walking. Toyotas line up in traffic. 

Those who visited Rwanda four years ago are amazed by the growth and changes. Today we visited the WE-ACTx clinic that provides comprehensive health and human services to women and children with HIV and AIDS. A doctor from Cook County Hospital in Chicago founded the…

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On My Way to Africa


Those words sounded like magic –rolled out in almost a whisper by a child in the 1970s television commercial for the Detroit Zoo.

Today, in about 3 hours, I board a plane from Chicago to Rwanda (via Brussels).

Many of my friends have asked “Why?”. 

“Why Africa?” “Why  Rwanda?”

I could rattle off any number of seemingly plausibly answers, but really, I’m going because I can.   I had dreamed of Africa for as long as I can remember.  My synagogue announced a service trip.  Funds were available.  And it was time.  My friend Deb has a juicier answer.  She calls my going “divine enticement.”  Something beyond me, coaxing me there.    

I’ll be joining my congregation in working with two different AIDS organizations.  One, WE-ACTx, provides access to treatment and services for women and children with AIDS and HIV.   The other, CHABHA, funds and supports children orphaned by AIDS.

I’ve been given the following advice by those who have traveled: Surrender.  Drop expectations. And breathe it in.  I’ve learned a little about doing just that over the past five years.  And so I am optimistic.

My passport and yellow-fever vacination certification is tucked into my bag, along with my wallet.  I have a rain shell that my friend Michael brought to me Monday night.  And I’m traveling in shoes not quite suited for Africa.  I’ll change them when I arrive.

 Friends have asked me to write and to take photos.   This is my beginning.